From Unburned Woods to “Clear and Distinct” Views
George Washington never described the Rappahannock. He noted it as a busy place of ferries and roads in 1747. In 1772, when he sold off his old family home, he noted the land’s “clear and distinct” overlook of “almost every house” in Fredericksburg on the opposite bank. From the rise by the road one could keep a harbor master’s tally of “every vessel that passes to and from it.”1 He described the river only in terms of what mattered to a man weighing the value of the land as an object for sale.
Washington never mentioned what the river felt like when one jumped into its slow brown water on a hot day. He made no mention of the sound it made slapping on the bank or the smell it gave off when the shad were running. No ice to cut in winter, no stones skipping on the surface or splashing on the far side, no rising and falling of the tides.
No mention also of the home where he learned life’s joys and its abiding fragility. No notice made of the places he walked, rode, ran, and jumped with his siblings. No reflection on the emotional struggles a young man had endured; only a crisp catalogue of the sellable attributes of a place upon which he was turning his back.
The river that passed by the Washingtons’ doorstep was in reality two rivers—two impulses, each stemming from very different places and each functioning very differently amidst the world’s waters. One was a creature of the western mountains—a clear rocky run made from countless collected mountain springs. The other was born of the ocean to the east—a slow-moving, muddy and salty wash pushed and pulled by the tides of the wide Chesapeake Bay and the great Atlantic beyond that. At Ferry Farm, the river’s wild backcountry impulses soften into a more genteel and tamed run. The river becomes bridled and usable—a friend and ally to farmers and sailors.
As the river changes, so does the land itself. To the west, the dips and rises of the hills get steeper and become more frequent. The long views are blocked more and more by the terrain’s ups and downs. Within a dozen or so miles of the river’s bank one can make out the top of the Blue Ridge and see just why the mountains have that name. The dirt becomes redder in color than the brownish, silty, stoney soil at Ferry Farm, and the rocks in the dirt become bigger and flatter than the water-rolled, shattered stones of the Rappahannock.
To the east, though, and to the south as well, the land rolls more gently. The views are longer and the hazy sky is bigger. The rocks of Ferry Farm disappear from the soil. At the Falls they are everywhere, and have been built into local homes for as long as people have settled here. But just a bit downriver, the rocks are gone altogether and there is only sand and clay—covered of course with a rich loamy topsoil. The lapping and occasional flooding of the river makes this fertile, nutrient-rich land; its stone-free, sandy loamy mix has made it wonderful farmland for centuries.
Nature had made this a meeting place of landscapes—a transitional place between terrains. It was up to people, though, to give it meaning and what we like to call history.
In 1607, a group of former soldiers, Puritans, and well-connected dandies pooled their sovereigns, hired some ships, and sent a party of gentlemen and sundry laborers off to make a profit in America. Similar London-based ventures had tried and failed, first at North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and then at a rocky Maine island called Sagadahoc, not to mention uncounted fishing camps and seasonal weigh stations. For more than a century Europeans had been wringing profits from America, and latecomer England was finally getting serious about getting in on the game.
The London Company’s lot were to head over, find a nice spot in what folks around town ambitiously called “Virginia” (a tribute to the by-then dead queen who ruled the last time they tried settling at this latitude), and set about somehow to make a profit for the project backers. At a bend in a river they named after their current monarch, James, they set up a hasty trade fort and did the best that they could manage.2
The men were not the first Europeans to take a stab at settling on these rivers. That distinction went to a group of Spanish Jesuits who tried and failed in the 1570s. But Spain still saw this “Virginia” as, in fact, its own. Fear of the Spanish was uppermost on the fort dwellers’ minds as they cowered and gradually died in their log and earth creation. As it happened, though, bad relations with the local Natives, internal bickering, diseases, famine, and foul water all proved to be far bigger and more immediate problems than were galleonloads of Catholic “Dons” looking to take back their colonial swamp from heretical Protestant interlopers. But in those earliest days, turning a profit and learning the land were paramount.
English colonization sent its ripples up every one of Virginia’s rivers and into every Native town and hamlet. We don’t know when the Natives living along the Rappahannock or near the Falls and Ferry Farm first learned of the new arrivals in the low country. They certainly learned in 1608, thanks to a reconnaissance party of young laborers and gentlemen in a heavy English shallow-draft boat led by Captain John Smith.
The adventurer did not spill much ink describing the Rappahannock River or the land that bounded it. What the short, stout, scruffy captain did make clear was that the Rappahannock tour was no pleasure cruise for the English would-be conquistadors. A few downriver Native towns welcomed them—Smith reported that the people of Pissassack, Nandtaughtacund, and Cuttatawomen, for example, “used us kindly.”3 But more often, conflict with the river’s peoples marked their travels. Principal among these Native foes were the Rappahannock people themselves—the people for whom the river would hereafter be named.
They lived then in a large town in the heart of the river’s tidal run—about fifty miles downriver from the Falls. The town’s martial men devoted themselves fully to making clear to the invaders that this was their river and they were fully prepared and more than willing to defend it from all comers. Ultimately, they and almost all of Virginia’s eastern Indians would lose that fight, but their actions that hot summer ensured that warfare would be imprinted on the river from its very first mention in English writing.
Along the way from the Chesapeake Bay to the Rappahannock’s falls, Smith and his men were harassed by repeated flights of Rappahannock arrows fired by bowmen camouflaged by bushes or hiding behind trees. Where they could, English musket men fired at or pursued their attackers on shore, but the skilled Rappahannock warriors had every home turf advantage and simply disappeared at will, only to reappear later at another place of their own choosing. In one case the defenders mocked the boatmen by “dauncing and singing very merrily” in plain sight after dodging an ineffectual and unimpressive volley of musketry.4
The summer heat also took its toll. It probably was the cause of party member Richard Featherstone’s death on August 16, about twenty miles or so downriver from Ferry Farm. Smith reported that the day after they buried poor Richard with a “volley of shot,” and soon after the party “sayled so high” as their heavy boat “would float.”5
This was the Falls, and the area around Ferry Farm—the first documented visit to the site. On seeing the rocks and the change in the river’s character, the sailors knew they were at the end of this leg of their trip—their bulky conveyance was of no use as the river changed character. In good explorer fashion, though, the English began “setting up crosses” and carving their names into the bark of trees near Ferry Farm.6 They did not plan on staying, but such marks of possession were de rigueur for these “always leave a trace” campers. Souvenirs were nice, too. Eager to find reward for their efforts, the explorers poked around for valuable stones or, better yet, metals, and while searching looked for fiber-rich vegetables to eat and spring water to drink.
Soon, though, quartz-tipped Native arrows once again began to slam into the ground and tree cover. This time it was not the Rappahannocks, but war parties from communities above the Falls eager now to make their force and presence known and defend the edges of their homeland.
A party of men from the town of Hasinninga at the forks of the Rappahannock, about twenty miles distant, had gathered near Ferry Farm in a small hunting town called Mohaskahod and waited for the armed strangers to show up, as they knew they eventually would. These nearly one hundred Hasinninga bowmen infuriated the Englishmen who could not manage to get a bead on their nimble opponents “skipping from tree to tree, letting fly their arrows so fast as they could” while the explorers cowered behind the Native-made shields they earlier had lashed onto their boat.7
Despite this rough welcome, the Englishmen managed to take one of the Hasinninga bowmen captive. Through an interpreter, this man gave voice to a Native understanding of the river and the area around Ferry Farm.
The Falls area, he revealed, was a juncture in a vast landscape continuum. It began far to the west where the sun resided beyond the mountains. As one traveled downriver, south and eastward, one went lower and lower in altitude until at some unknown distance, a traveler would find himself finally going beneath the earth. To Native eyes, this underground alien place was where the English had themselves come. The informer was able to name the peoples along that continuum; the Monacan and Massawomeks lived high up, closer to the sun, while the Powhatan, the Rappahannock, and others lived lower down, nearer the earth’s lowest point. The lands set back from the river’s banks were harder to know, because, as he claimed, “the woods were not burnt,” meaning they were thick, impassable, choked with untold ages of undergrowth—not a place for people.8
The visitors therefore had been traveling upward since they began their voyage, passing through worlds of increasing proximity to the sun. But the residents of the forks of the Rappahannock had decided these underworld dwellers had gone far enough. It was bad enough the strangers had floated through the river’s lower miles—Native warriors were powerless to stop that advance—but the juncture of the upper and lower rivers would be as far as they would go.
With their advance stopped by Natives and their own boat’s limitations, the English turned around and headed back downriver toward the earth’s distant opening. Native archers hounded them all the way back to Richard Featherstone’s grave site. Having made their point, the warriors from nearer the sun then set down their bows and made peace with the Underworlders. The latter finally drifted back downriver and for the time being, the world’s order remained more or less as it had been.
But it would not be for long.
The change began at the lower reaches—far from the Falls. Along the broad rivers bearing new English names—James and York—English plans to use the land collided with Native plans to live as they always had. Through a series of singularly brutal wars against the low-country Algonquian-speaking Powhatan Indians and their allies, the new arrivals made clear that the new order had no place for members of the old one. Each war knocked back the number of Natives and pushed them farther and farther up country, away from the lowlands and the plague of Englishmen.
By the middle of the century, the once influential and powerful network of low-country Algonquians had been reduced to a few small camps of contained, subject peoples.
Distant low-country conflicts would nevertheless send shock waves to the towns near the Falls and the land that would become Ferry Farm. Travelers’ stories would have brought the news to the Falls and everyone would have known the tragic tales of refugees heading westward looking to rebuild their lives in another Native community. For decades, the Falls served as a watch post from which Native peoples could look out nervously and see the growing pale of English settlement expanding acre by acre before them—a front row seat for the grandest drama anyone there would have known.
English colonization in Virginia was not a gradient—not a case of one color meeting another and the two gradually bleeding together until something new, neither one color nor the other, came into being. Instead, “English” was a dichotomous variable—a person, a place, a colony either was in or out. English Virginians had a plan, and Native peoples were not part of it: That is how these English played their colonial hand.
By the 1650s English colonial landowners began to claim the Falls areas as their own. By then it was already a completely different place from the one Smith had visited. The carved trees had healed or died, and Smith’s crosses were long gone. Gone was the hunting town of Mohaskahod. Gone too were the Hasinninga and their bowmen to harass unwanted visitors.
It no longer mattered that the river ran from the sun on down to the earth’s lower reaches. It no longer mattered that unburned woods bordered the Rappahannock. It no longer mattered that the Falls were a border between peoples—Siouxan speakers back toward the mountains, Algonquian speakers below. The old Native understandings of what made the place a transition between worlds were eclipsed by English ones. What mattered most now was that the Falls were the farthest reaches of English navigation. The rocks and shallows that stopped Smith’s boat now trumped the other meanings people had long put on the land. What began to matter now was who had the court papers, surveys, maps, and properly sealed and signed legal documents to show to an English court’s satisfaction that they were the rightful owner.
The area now became the deepest up-country reach of English settlements. It became a thin tendril in an Atlantic world that connected even the most remote colonial outpost to the varied commercial, governmental, and cultural pulses of Europe and other colonies. An English vessel fully loaded in London, or Plymouth, or Bristol could sail uninterrupted, if its captain wished and its supplies held out, all the way from English docks right to Ferry Farm’s narrow wharf.
By the 1650s an ever-increasing number of Englishmen arriving in Virginia needed more and more land to turn to profit. At the same time the first colonists were taking up residence near Ferry Farm, a sailor named John Washington took up farming a small parcel of land on the far wider Potomac River near where it meets the Chesapeake Bay. But it would be nearly a century before the flow of his family’s story ran into that of Ferry Farm’s.
Long before the Washingtons arrived, though, low-country landowners were stocking up on Falls-area backcountry holdings for future use. The English had a cunning system in place for dividing up land and ensuring the growth of the Virginia colony all in one policy. It began with a 1618 law that granted fifty acres of land “for every person” which a planter “shall transport thither.”9 The system came to be called “headrights,” referring to the right of land for every “head” brought to the colony, and by the 1650s it was working its special colonial magic in the area around Ferry Farm.
It worked this way. Virginia’s flourishing was tied to agriculture, with tobacco quickly becoming its most important export. To grow the finicky crop, settlers needed, first, land to plant on, and second, labor to do the work. The headrights system brilliantly combined the twin demands of land and labor. Of course the colony would become infamous for its use of African labor, pilfered in one way or another and shipped to American plantations, there to serve for life. By the 1660s Virginia’s most prosperous planters had well begun the momentous and deeply consequential shift to an enslaved African labor force. They leveraged commercial ties to the Caribbean’s thriving trade in enslaved Africans and bought right in. But for much of the 1600s, the bulk of Virginia’s working backs were shipped right from England and her immediate neighbors.10
The deal was that these workers would sign a contract—an “indenture”—obligating them to a term of service, usually seven years, though of course it could vary. At the end of that time (and if the worker lived), there would be a reward, most often in the form of a small piece of land. These sorts of contract-based labor terms were the norm in that day—no laborer in England would have attached any real stigma to serving a term as an indentured worker, any more than we today deride receiving a paycheck in exchange for one’s labor.
In fact, there were far worse possibilities for workers. England was awash in harsh property laws. Dozens of seemingly mild crimes were punishable by death or dismemberment. Having one’s labor sold to a Virginia master must have seemed a sweet reprieve compared to being executed for stealing a chicken or a loaf of bread to feed a family. While there were certainly hardened killers and cutpurses shipped to the colonies, most of the “convicts” were really just ordinary folks ground down between the twin stones of hard times and a brutal legal regime. And then there were the poorest of the landless poor. These people lived with the possibility of having their children rounded up and sold out by county courts to serve until the age of twenty-one, and only then perhaps move up to indentured servitude and a possible reward at the end of that negotiated term.
Thus, Virginia’s landowners had a few ways to get the needed muscle to work their fields: poor folks sold into service, indentured servants, people convicted of one crime or another, and enslaved Africans as well. On occasion Indian wars in the hinterlands or in other colonies could also provide Native captive laborers. But each laborer, however procured or whatever work regime he or she endured, had to be brought to the colony. And so long as they came across the ocean to their new colonial home, the headrights system came into play.
The Crown—the formal owner of all colonial holdings—through its representatives in the colony granted fifty new acres of Virginia land compensation per “head” to the person footing the bill for transporting new people across the Atlantic. Bring over 10 people, qualify for 500 acres; bring over 50, scoop up 2,500, and so on. Small fees applied here and there, and the headrights were themselves a commodity—like a sort of land-based promissory note—which could be traded around, saved up till needed, or used to pay off debts. But in all cases, it was a brilliant way to ensure the growth of the colony.
As better-off planters brought in new labor, they also acquired more land. That land could be granted as freedom payments to servants finishing their terms, or it could be consolidated into larger holdings—holdings which required more labor for its cultivation. Or, the land could be sold or exchanged for other parcels. More land, more labor, and more labor, more land thus created a snowballing policy which kept people arriving, and ensured that more and more land would fall under the plow and the hoe wielded by more and more Virginians.
From 1618 until, officially at least, as late as 1779, head by head, person by person, parcel by parcel the headrights system helped make Virginia Britain’s largest and most populous mainland American colony.
The system landed at the Falls in 1655 when a woman named Margaret Brent claimed one thousand acres on the Rappahannock’s south bank “about a quarter of a mile above the falls of the said river.”11 At least twenty new arrivals allowed her to make this claim. They were most likely farmhand servants: Walter Oliver, Richard Cherry, William Cooper, Thomas Allen, Giles Wright, and eleven otherwise forgotten men made the trip that became Margaret Brent’s right to claim land. With them in the claim were a gentleman named John Underhill, two women named Sarah Loman and Mary Wagstaff, and one solitary “Negro woman” whose real name no one knew or wrote down. A small glimpse of the range of people becoming Virginians.
Smith’s adventurers tried to change the land—or at least to put some claiming mark on it. They carved trees and named places. But these did not last. Smith himself recorded his adventure’s findings on a stunningly accurate map. But these were acts for an English audience. What difference did it make to the people of Hasinninga that their town and the hamlet of Mohaskahod were memorialized and plotted on a piece of shredded wood pulp fussed over by people far away?
But the patenting of land? That was something of a different order altogether. The bounding of Native acres, the marking and recording of a landscape’s various chosen features—here a large boulder, there a “marked oak”—the transcribing of thousands of tiny local details in hundreds of court documents, all invested with the weight and authority of government, and the rising tide of Englishmen clutching copies of those documents and claiming that the papers gave them, and only them, exclusive right to the land between the large boulder and the marked oak? Now that could not be ignored.12
This was how land became property—a totally different perspective on the same object. Certainly the original inhabitants owned the land. They used it daily. They saw it as theirs. They were prepared to fight for it when the uninvited visitors crashed in. But ownership as Natives understood it, and property as the English understood it, were not at all the same thing. The apparatus of law, writing, naming, mapping, and bounding were the complicated rituals that the English performed to change the ever-existing, ever-extending land into something more like a cup or hat—a thing that could be possessed, traded, sold, passed along. Property.13
Margaret Brent did just that at the Falls in 1655. Soon after that, others turned more transported people into Rappahannock patents. The arrival of Jonathan Boucher, Silvester Sparrow, Abram Stone, Elizabeth Tooth, “Tom—Negro” as well as ninety-one other British men, fourteen of their countrywomen, and sixteen unnamed Africans allowed two gentlemen named Lawrence Smith and Robert Taliaferro to claim well over six thousand acres just below the Falls—land that would eventually be part of the city of Fredericksburg. The arrival of Peter Plummer, Elizabeth Newhouse, Faith Edwards, and fourteen other fellow travelers let Captain Thomas Hawkins help himself to the land right at the Falls themselves.14 People became the right to land, land became property, and gradually Virginia became British.
In 1666 Colonel John Catlett claimed the headrights for thirty-one men and nine women transported to the colony. These people netted him a two-hundred-acre chunk of land on the river’s north side, a small way below the Falls and right opposite a parcel owned by Lawrence Smith. Catlett’s acres sat right at a “bay” where the river widened just a bit, making it a fine landing. Behind that the land rose from the floodplain, first up to a broad plateau, and then gently sloping up even more to precipitous heights farther back. This land would become Ferry Farm.
New owners renamed their world. The banks of the river became known in documents as the North Side and South Side of the Rappahannock River. The Falls became a central point of reference as well, with properties listed as being “up the falls,” as were the 9019 Mott family and associates’ acres, “below the lowest fall” as in the case of Catlett’s land, or “at the lowest fall,” as with Hawkin’s parcel.15 Various creeks and streams or fields took on English names like “Smart’s Creek,” or “Tignor’s Creek,” titles which inscribed ownership into the land. Other names noted activities like “Mill Creek,” while still others suggested meanings and personal experiences like the suggestively labeled “Omen Creek.”16 Some names like “Doegg’s Clear Ground” and “Nusaponucks Creek” acknowledged the Indian presence that the patenting process itself was erasing.17
Above all, English Virginians described their land in relation to that of their neighbors. In June, 1666 Roger Richardson claimed a parcel that abutted one owned by Silvester Thatcher, while Jonathan Curtis’s 250 acres bordered lands owned by Henry Corbin, William Copelin, and Robert Price.18 Moreover, over time, people’s names could morph with the land itself. One patent may refer to Lawrence Smith’s land, but soon that same place became Smith’s Field, before finally becoming Smithfield. Virginia places were fitting into the same mechanism that had shaped the place-names of old England for centuries.
Thus, page by page in the county court record book, a blanket of English names settled on the land, gradually creating a colonial patchwork which was both an enduring and transformative act of conquest, and simultaneously, a record of how that process took shape.
Every name was attached to a body, but where were those actual bodies? A casual reading of the rush of land claims in the 1650s and 1660s could leave the impression that English settlers were flooding the region like a storm-driven tidal rush from the lower counties. But that would be wrong.
As titles like colonel and captain suggest, these early landowners were well-connected, socially prominent Virginians—men well established in their low-country tobacco plantations. At the Falls the main players were not the wealthiest men in the colony, but were prominent local elites—big fish in sometimes small ponds, but with aspirations of getting bigger and bigger.
Most of these men were unlikely to abandon their Tidewater homes for residences at the still-somewhat-distant lands at the Falls. Instead, they could collect and trade parcels. They could rent them to tenants. They could use chunks of Falls holdings to pay off freedom dues to servants strong enough and lucky enough to live to claim their contract-granted acres. And of course, they could sell bits to other Virginians. They cut their parcels up, added them to new ones, sold them off, and left them to others with such dizzying frequency that to reconstruct the ownership history of even a single piece of land can be a daunting task. The game of land ownership was a way of life.
But move to the Falls? No, most did not. Take Ferry Farm’s first English owner Colonel John Catlett, for example. Catlett came to the colony around 1655 with his wife, his brother-in-law Ralph Rousey, and a few other kin. Like many migrants in that moment, they were fleeing the fallout of English Civil War—a conflict which left supporters of the old king Charles I, like Catlett, on the losing side. Governor Sir William Berkeley made Virginia something of a haven for these so-called “Cavaliers” now that their parliamentarian enemies controlled the mother country. He invited many to come settle in the colony and made a few his confidantes and close associates. Catlett did not rise quite as high as that even though he was on very good terms with Sir William. Nevertheless, he did well along the Rappahannock and stayed loyal to his new governor—just as he had the king they both served—even while others questioned his rule.
Virginia had much to recommend to men like Catlett even without the added push of losing a war. Englishmen with land and titles in the old country rarely moved to the colonies. Why would they? So for the most part, England’s upper social brackets were not to be found on colonial plantations. Instead, it was members of Britain’s middling orders and the ambitious who made the journey over the ocean and became the upper crust in a society lacking a proper English gentry.
In England, these men were a middle strata in social layering that had the poor below them and nobility permanently above. But in Virginia, a well-off, well-set farmer found himself at the top of the heap—with few knights or barons to cast a shadow on the greatness granted by tobacco and land speculations, cattle raising, shipping, and other endeavors. These colonial gentryman—“Merchant Planters” they styled themselves—served their communities through church, government, and militia, gathering up local ranks and distinctions and building estates to pass along to their children. In this way, Virginia produced a colonial ruling class rooted in the values and aspirations of the British countryside, but playing the roles of noblemen ruling their communities.
Catlett and his little clan immediately cashed in their headrights for a tract on the river’s south bank, about midway between the Falls and the Chesapeake—not far from the old site of the Rappahannock Native village. A 1670 map shows a little creek with his name at the end of it. Since the map lists very few settlers’ names, that small “Catlet” written there speaks volumes about his family’s prominence along that part of the river. The tidewater plantation at the end of the creek became the family’s base of operations for the next twenty years as Colonel Catlett set about becoming great in the Virginia style.
Recalling his English Civil War experience, he quickly took the high rank of colonel in the Rappahannock County militia—a position that situated him right in the midst of conflict between the river’s Native and British residents. That placement would ultimately cost him dearly.
He served as a justice of the peace, a lower-level office but an important one that inserted him into all manner of his neighbors’ affairs.
He also sat on the governing body of the Anglican Church in his local Sittingbourne Parish. He even found himself in a doctrinal squabble with a minister named Doughty. Catlett and a few allies called the man out for being a less than loyal Anglican and his “scandalous liveing to the griefe of the whole parish.” In return, the aggrieved good reverend denied his critics Easter communion and used his sermons for what Catlett called “pulpit cussings” lambasting his “Levityes and great Extravagances.”19 The great schism on the Rappahannock ended when Governor Berkeley himself told the combatants to settle down and play nice.
But perhaps most significantly, Catlett was also a surveyor. This vocation took him all along the upper Rappahannock and well beyond in search of new lands to claim and enfold in the English system of property. In fact, few Englishmen would have known the river and its banks as well as did the colonel. In all likelihood, he surveyed his Ferry Farm acres himself. He certainly spent as much time in the woods taking measurements as he did at home monitoring his tobacco plants.20
Surveying was hard work. It meant long trips far from home. It meant sleeping on the wet ground in the rain, or huddling near a campfire for warmth in the snow. It meant risking physical injury through accident or through a bad encounter with Natives who were learning more and more to resent surveying parties. It also required skill in mathematics, a steady hand with a pen, and good eye. Instructional books of the day like George Atwell’s The Faithful Surveyor or Aaron Rathborne’s The Surveyor were packed with equations, formulae, and pictures of triangles—it took a specially trained eye if one were to “mete his ground by my chaine,” as Atwell told his readers. It also took specialized tools of the craft like quadrants, compasses, and preset lengths of measuring chains. These all worked in concert to create computations recorded in a notebook “well-bound with vellum” and filled with “good strong paper” to resist rain and wear in the field.21
Survey parties had hard work to do. First, they had to travel long miles to get to their destinations. Roads were few in the backcountry. Thus, travel meant walking narrow Native trails, or dodging branches on a horse’s back as it gingerly picked its way down paths never intended for the beast.22 Unexpectedly swollen rivers could block paths. Animal perils like rattlesnakes could strike at unprotected ankles or spook a nervous horse. The rain could pour in torrents, as well, as George Washington learned when an early surveying expedition to the mountains was temporarily shut down by rain “increasing very fast.”23
But travel was only the first of a “faithfull surveryour’s” ordeal. Once at the site, they still had to clear paths for the straight lines needed by those compasses and quadrants, and to run those specially measured lengths of chain. This required axes and saws to cut though tree limbs and slash away at view-obscuring underbrush. Once the cutting, clearing, and chopping was done, the mathematical calculations could be recorded. For surveyors, it was blisters, shin splints, more blisters, and writer’s cramp, experienced in that order.
It was hard work all around, but well worth the effort. To be able to map out a piece of land—to be the first to size it up through English eyes, taste its soil, feel if it were well-watered or dry, assess its timber stands, drink from its water sources—was the 1600s equivalent of getting in on a going concern’s ground floor. Gather up good parcels, trade off or deed to freed servants the lesser ones, turn a profit from the lands under cultivation, put the profits into buying up more parcels or into bringing in more people whose headrights let one go back to the woods and claim new lands. This was the ongoing board game that the Virginia gentry knew, loved, and lived by. And in Catlett’s day it was being played all along the upper reaches of every one of Virginia’s rivers, from the Potomac to the Rappahannock’s north, to the York and James to its south.
Landowning was a central value in Virginia life—perhaps more important and more significant even than the colony’s celebrated tobacco crops. With a large landed nobility in England, centuries of property ownership, and a finite amount of island acres, it was very hard to buy land—even for those who otherwise had the resources.
But a place like Virginia offered a unique opportunity in the British world: the chance to own land. Of course, farming land required owning land. But it was more as well. A “free hold”—a parcel of land all one’s own—gave a free man the right to vote and hold office. Landowning was a key to personal prosperity as well as a real and tangible stake in society itself. In a world so driven by the desire for land, the role of surveyor held a special pride of place.
There was a catch, though: Not all land was the same. For most of its colonial history Virginia’s main prestige crop was tobacco. Sweet Scented was the most profitable, Orinoco, second best. Prices fluctuated across the century, but the sot weed remained a principal way to achieve a kind of landed gentility that mirrored that of the comfortable gentry of the old country. But the best tobacco stalks cared not about the dynamics of colonial landgrabbing. Tobacco wanted a certain balance in its soil—just the right mix of acidity, sand, loam, drainage, and as few rocks as possible. Those needs were perfectly met in the Tidewater’s soft alluvial soils. The lower counties of James City, New Kent, York, Gloucester, and others rapidly filled with tobacco plantations, some of which made their owners quite wealthy. Decent estates had been made and dynasties established.
But these most desirable acres were finite. Virginians like Catlett could patent as many acres as daylight and determination would let them survey, but most of these would not sustain the kind of high-value tobacco production of the lower counties closest to the Chesapeake Bay.
By the 1650s and 1660s when Catlett and his compatriots were in the woods laying survey chains and taking measurements, almost all of the best tobacco lands were already owned and farmed by earlier arrivals. Even at this early date the colony was already developing local cultures of opportunity and in the west, and especially in the land between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, speculation was good business. Even though the most prized Sweet Scented tobacco crops were not going to grow in northern or western soils, there was still a growing market in new lands for a growing population along these northern rivers.
The Potomac was wide and inviting—it still is today. Ships could ply its waters easily and the river’s snaking turns offer views, allow breezes, and let neighbors feel connected to the homes they could see from their doorsteps. When Catlett platted out his acres near the Falls, in 1666, Virginians already had filled up the Potomac’s southern bank with their homes and fields. One of these Potomac settlers, as it happens, was George Washington’s great-grandfather John Washington, who made his home on a well-placed spur between two creeks.
But the upper reaches of Catlett’s Rappahannock was a very different place. Today, as then, it is narrow and linear. One can see the opposite side, but the Potomac’s long views are not to be had. Catlett’s downriver home was a toehold in the wide tidewater world of the low-country tobacco growers. But it was also a springboard to the river’s narrower upper reaches where an able and hardy surveyor could map out lands he could sell at a good profit.
In August 1670 Catlett dropped by his Ferry Farm holdings during what would prove to be his last trip into the western mountains. The trip itself was pleasant enough—enchanting, even. A few days on horse passing through a “vast forest” of a “melancholy darkness” but whose “verdure is wonderful pleasant to the eye,” and then “into a clear open skie” to “savanae” filled with “herds of red deer” nibbling on “luxurious herbage.” The travelers drank from the cool waters of the “first springs” that in time became “the great rivers which run into the Atlantick Ocean, or Cheseapeack Bay.”24
After that, a ride up the mountainside and scamper “afoot” to a surprisingly-chilly-for-the-season rocky summit.25 In view of the next range of peaks, he and his fellows “drank the king’s health in brandy” and named their cold mountain after their king Charles.26 The men were saddened a bit by not having found a passage through to the Pacific Ocean which they had hoped would be spread out before them, but no doubt the brandy helped. On the way back, the colonel took some measurements with the tools he had brought along and just missed getting a nice bite from a poisonous “Mountain-spider,” whatever genus that might have been.
But the real danger was not in a spider or venomous snake’s bite. For while the mountains may have been blessed with a delicious “clear and open skie,” the lower land near the Falls was still draped with “a melancholy darkness,” made less so by the thick forest canopy than by the growing fight over who would own it.27
One of Catlett’s party later described the Falls as sitting “in Indian Mantapeuk,” perhaps a mistaken reference to the down-country Mattaponi or even a garbled version of the up-country Monacan.28 In any case, it was clearly still an unsettled place to English eyes. Roughly a day’s ride downriver from the Falls on the south bank was the home of Robert Taliaferro, a neighbor and associate of Catlett’s and the last English home as one headed westward.
Yet even though there were still no English living as far upriver as the Falls, people like the Doeg Indians then living near Ferry Farm, and other western Indians just beyond, had seen sixty years of steady encroachment. They had the memory of how the Virginians had treated low-country Natives in the first decades of the century—some were even the children of refugees from those bloody wars. These western tribes had signed onto Governor Berkeley’s 1646 peace treaty—but that peace was evermore uneasy as British property law enfolded more and more Native land. And with surveyors like Catlett chopping limbs and clanking chains with an infuriating determination, the pressure to strike back must have been unbearable.
Moreover, wherever English and Native Virginians lived close to each other they made poor neighbors. English cattle and pigs roved at will and sometimes wandered into Native farms, rooting up carefully tended gardens. Native hunters, in return, rarely hesitated to take down English livestock as if it was just so much more wild game. These may seem like trivial matters—rooted crops or skewered hogs—but they are exactly the kinds of daily conflicts that made men’s blood boil. One result might be lawsuits—that is if English courts could find the Native hunters they sought to bring to trial. Another more common result, though, was violence—here a raid, there a sudden killing in the woods, each one leading to the next.
Affront by affront, Native and English alike concluded that life with the new neighbors was just impossible. And the dead mounted.
In 1666 Catlett had complained to Governor Berkeley that he and his up-river neighbors suffered from “Execrable murders” at the hands of “a combination of our Northern Indians” including a town of Doeg Indians then living hard by Ferry Farm.29
That same 1670 map that showed the “Catlet” home place, also showed the Doeg village at the center of the troubles. It was presented as a set of six curve-topped cabins sitting between two creeks on a bend in the river a few miles below the falls.
The map also showed lots of small boxlike English homes lining the banks of the river. No names near them, not even the suggestion that these were meant to be actual homes. Instead, these were symbols of a growing British presence along the river. The evenly spaced, regimented regularity of these little boxes contrasted ominously with the little cluster of Native homes at the benddrawn intentionally twice the size of the little English boxes, and with “Doogs Indian” next to them in bold clear letters. A few of the English boxes sat between the Doegs and the Falls, but not a single box was at Ferry Farm or at the clearly marked rocks of the Rappahannock’s falls.
Even more ominously, perhaps, Catlett singled out these “Doagge” people as being “particularly” a source of trouble, and sought his governor’s blessing to “utterly destroy and eradicate” them once and for all. He was one of many “westerners” who worried daily about the risk of Native raid, but Catlett had rather a personal interest in this vendetta. Only twenty short days before his letter, he had legally laid claim to two thousand acres at Ferry Farm, upriver from the Doeg. No doubt he wanted to see that land secure its own cluster of little English boxes and make a profit along the way. But having a troublesome Native village between his new land and the lower settlements was not exactly a selling point. Catlett stood to gain if he and local militiamen were able to “utterly destroy and eradicate” the Doeg.30 This was the dark side of land speculation.
It is unclear just how Berkeley responded to Catlett’s grim request—no letter or record survives. But we do know a few things that fill in the gaps.
First off, soon after his return from drinking the king’s health on the Blue Ridge, a raiding party of unnamed Indians killed Colonel Catlett near what is now Port Royal on the Rappahannock. As a militia officer, planter, and surveyor—provocative vocations one and all—he was a perfect target for all that was enraging the up-country Natives, who were pushed off their land survey by survey, English patent by English patent. Given how face-to-face and personal these killings could be, there is every reason to suspect that the raiders knew just whom they were taking out. Might Catlett’s killers have been the selfsame Doeg whose murder he plotted? We cannot know for sure, but it is a strong possibility.
Secondly, in July of 1675 a party of Doeg attacked the home of one of Catlett’s neighbors, a planter named Thomas Matthews. The immediate cause of the raid was a disagreement over a debt, but everyone knew that there was much more in the air than a few pounds sterling for some trade goods. The killing of Matthews tipped the scale in a way that Catlett’s killing had not. Militiamen took to the marches and set about revenging themselves—in their number was John Washington. When their fury ended up killing Natives allied to Virginia as opposed to enemies, the whole western edge of the colony exploded in violence.
When Governor Berkeley called for restraint, a host of long-lingering grievances boiled over, and bands of rebels sought his head as well as any Indian scalps they could lift. When it was all over, Virginia had weathered its first civil war. Berkeley survived, but his capital, Jamestown, was burned, many of the colony’s greatest homes were in ruins, and a set of twenty-three gentry ringleaders met the hangman for their insubordination.31
But, as in the first half of the century, it was the Natives that got the worst of the 1670s fighting. The war opened to English settlement all those great “savannae” acres Catlett had traversed just before his death, thus a full generation of western expansion was secured by what in effect began with Catlett’s letter to Governor Berkeley. The colonel did not live to see it, but his plans for the Doeg were met to the letter—and the Doeg were not the only ones to feel that wrath.
The last echoes of the world the Hasinninga captive revealed to Captain Smith faded from the world. No longer did the earth slope down from the sun to the sea. No longer were the Falls a border between peoples. The cool mountain water still would meet the sea at Ferry Farm, but from now on, the water, the land, and the “clear and distinct view” Washington would later describe would be for the benefit of the newcomers and their descendants. The once unburned banks of the river were, once and for all, property. And on that property began to cluster new little English boxes.
Copyright © 2013 by Philip Levy
PHILIP LEVY holds a Ph.D. in history from the College of William and Mary and is currently associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, where he teaches early American history, public history, and historical archaeology. He is the 2004 recipient of the Virginia Historical Society’s prize for best article of the year, and the author of the book Fellow Travelers: Indians and Europeans Contesting the Early American Trail. He lives in Florida.